CHESHIRE — It’s probably no coincidence that “honey” is one of the most common terms of endearment in the English language.
The word reminds us of sweetness; the golden-amber color of honey recalls natural warmth. Archeologists have found stores of Egyptian honey that date back 3,000 years, and which are still edible. Another discovery of honey stores, in the Caucasus mountain of Georgia, dates back 5,500 years.
Bees are found throughout the world, except for Antarctica, and have served as a source of fascination and nutrition for a variety of cultures. Despite that long history of co-existence with human efforts, successful honeybee cultivation still requires specialized knowledge. As Master Beekeeper Bill Hesbach asks, “If you’re going to start doing something, why not learn everything you can about it?”
That’s Hesbach’s approach, anyhow. He, along with his wife Elizabeth, are the owners of Wing Dance Apiary in Cheshire. The company provides its all-natural, always first-year, Fat Bee Honey to restaurants and consumers around Connecticut. What started small — creating about 50 cases a year that were sold mostly at local farm stands — has grown in the past decade to a professional output of around 400 cases.
But getting to this point, Hesbach says, was an educational journey, much of it learned through painful experience.
“Oh, I get stung pretty much every day,” Hesbach admitted, nonchalantly. That obvious occupational hazard is of little concern compared to the ravages of diseases that can wipe out a colony and a season’s work without careful monitoring.
Those diseases include the aptly-named American foulbrood and, increasingly, Varroosis, caused by the Varroa mite. Hesbach has authored a booklet on that subject, “for the beekeeper looking for less toxic and more natural alternatives without the use of chemicals.” He has also drawn on his past career in computer science and mechanical engineering to develop a home laboratory to monitor the health of his hives, but those are not the only difficulties involved in bee-keeping.
Bees will swarm if over-wintered, leaving the hives to start a new colony. If they’re under-nourished, they may not survive in a hive, since their preferred wintering grounds would be the interior of a tree. Take too much honey at once, and they become “defensive.”
Hesbach remarked that, “the bees have over a million years of evolution on us, so we don’t have the capacity to outwit them. We just have to watch and learn and obey the biology of the bees. They will guide you but you have to be willing to learn along the way.”
In order for someone to move from being a “bee-haver” whose colonies may fail, to a bee-keeper with consistent yields, Hesbach emphasizes the application of the scientific method. Hesbach completed the Master Beekeeping Course through the University of Montana and was certified as a Master Beekeeper through the Eastern Apicultural Society back in 2016.
He is one of only three individuals in Connecticut who have done so, and one of about 200 worldwide.
The Society is based off the pioneering work of Roger A. Morse, a Cornell University entomologist who was one of the first individuals to bring modern science techniques to the practice of beekeeping.
Hesbach says beekeepers must also learn through observation, usually with an experienced mentor. He is president of the Connecticut Beekeepers Association whose website — ctbees.org — provides many educational resources. Hesbach himself is a willing lecturer who talks about his work around the state for audiences including young people, members of the public just curious about the practice, and those just getting started in beekeeping. Hesbach has brought his knowledge to the world, traveling in Kenya and Thailand as parts of beekeeping education trips.
In Cheshire, Hesbach uses the naturally occurring trees in meadows around town to let the bees carry out their work. “I don’t use chemicals, so there’s no residue in the honey. Rather than an industrial product, I tend to think of them as livestock,” he said.
Hesbach points to a vibrant pink flowering cherry tree near his educational site, where bees can be seen going about their routine, as they’ve done for millennia. “You can see them working if you stand still,” he said, “if you’re moving around, you’re not going to see them, it’s a strange thing.”
Wing Dance Apiary is not open to the public and sells honey directly to local retailers and eateries via its online ordering system. Fat Bee Honey is available by the case with free local delivery to addresses within 10 miles of Cheshire. Special ordering is available outside the area by contacting Wing Dance. For more information go to www.wingdancehoney.com/.